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Speech by Minister Neale Richmond at Cross Border Trade and Economic Conference

Delivered in the Carrickdale Hotel, Dundalk

6th March 2024 - Fine Gael Press Office

Good morning everyone and thank you so much to the Newry and Dundalk Chambers for the invitation to be here and speak with you all today.

I really am so glad to see an event like this taking place, bringing together not only just politicians from both sides of the border, but also businesses, and our fantastic state agencies that provide amazing supports and in turn sustain thousands of jobs.

At the outset, I want to thank and acknowledge Councillor Paula Butterly, Cathaoirleach of Louth County Council, Councillor Valerie Harte of Newry, Mourne and Down, and Presidents Una McGoey and Edwina Flynn of the Dundalk and Newry Chambers. I also want to thank my colleague, Senator John McGahon, who represents this area and has been a consistent voice both for his area on our border, but indeed for more cross border supports, and my colleague Deputy Fergus O’Dowd who has spent his career working for the people of Drogheda, and achieved so much in his tenure.

I of course want to mention Minister Conor Murphy who is here today and who I had the opportunity to speak to before we kicked off this morning.

I really am so glad that I now have a Ministerial counterpart in the Executive that I can genuinely engage with, and work together to not only help businesses in our own areas, but to help them work together on an all-island approach. I know that when I speak to you on cross-border trade and the all-island economy, I am pushing an open door.

It is clear that both the First and Deputy First Minister are committed to working with all communities in Northern Ireland, as well as working with each other. In the few short weeks the Executive has been back up and running, they have both shown real leadership, reaching out to the other’s community, as well as our own south of the border. This has not gone unnoticed and I do believe it is a testament to their commitment to ensuring that this Executive does not follow the same fate as the last. I had an opportunity to speak with both Michelle and Emma just recently at John Bruton’s funeral and I look forward to seeing them work together to the benefit of the people of Northern Ireland.

We now stand almost 26 years on from the Good Friday Agreement and in many ways our island bears little resemblance to that of 26 years ago. The clouds of violence that were once commonplace for far too many people have moved on and we have a new generation of young people who know nothing but peace.

Regardless of whatever else we achieve together, and I have no doubt that the future is bright, this is a major accomplishment that we owe to the political leaders who came before us.

With the Executive back up and running, Ministers in place, and work beginning again, what a better time to have this discussion on the importance of our all-island economy.

Today, the value of cross border trade stands at over €11 billion. This has increased threefold since the Good Friday Agreement was signed.

This is a fantastic achievement for our island, but I firmly believe that now is just the beginning for the all-island economy.

The Windsor Framework will be nothing short of transformational for Northern Ireland’s economy and businesses. As we know well, international competition for Foreign Direct Investment is tough, we in Dublin are competing with some of the biggest economies in the world for these investments. However, what we don’t have, and what no other country in the world has, is dual access to the UK internal market, as well as the EU Single Market.

The all-island economy is another major attraction for businesses who are looking to Northern Ireland as when they look to NI, they have access to the whole island. A company in Derry can hire staff from Donegal, a dairy in Fermanagh can process milk from Cavan, a factory in Dundalk can use skilled workers from Newry.

In many cases, it was the businesses on our border, both sides of the border, who suffered the most from Brexit. The uncertainty of what would come impacted their attractiveness for investment, and their growth. Plans for investment were put on hold due to uncertainty as to how to proceed, existing businesses were faced with serious issues on crossing the border that they never imagined they would have to grapple with again.

While investment in our border has picked up, we are seeing strong growth in Local Enterprise Office supported jobs (15%) and growth in IDA investment, we can grow this even further by working more closely with our friends in Northern Ireland.

We should not be competing against each other on a North-South basis, but rather working together to improve outcomes for everyone. That is the true meaning of a sustainable all-island economy.

So, how do we achieve this?

With us today we are lucky to have representatives from the fantastic State Agencies that work North and South of the Border.

In Northern Ireland, Inter-Trade Ireland are doing fantastic work in supporting SMEs right across the island who are looking to grow. They are supporting over 57,000 businesses and have had an impact on 23,000 jobs. The work of Invest NI is similarly so important in growing the regional economies of Northern Ireland.

These bodies have carried out their work for the past few years without political leadership, but they have still performed strongly. I have absolutely no doubt that under Conor Murphy’s leadership, this work will go from strength to strength.

Enterprise Ireland, the Irish state body dedicated to supporting Irish SMEs, do similarly important work here. Enterprise Ireland clients now employ over 225,000 people across Ireland, 15,000 of which were created in 2023 alone. The IDA, the State body which works to attract FDI into Ireland are also hugely important to Ireland’s economy, with over 1,800 clients employing over 300,000 people. Across our border counties, over 10,000 people are employed by IDA clients but it can be so much more and we will do all we can to ensure this is the case.

It would be sensible for us to assume that many of these jobs, especially in our border counties, are held by workers living in Northern Ireland.

Not only that, but many of our Enterprise Ireland and LEO client companies are operating and trading in Northern Ireland, as are Northern Irish companies down South.

Therefore, it is only logical that our state agencies should make it a priority to work closer together to build on our all-island economy. I know that this work is already occurring, however now is the time that we really need to ramp up this collaboration to really maximise the benefits for us all.

I am delighted to see that a cross-border enterprise scheme is underway with input from these agencies on both sides of the border. A €30 million investment will see a focus on Female entrepreneurship, cross-border networks and clusters and collaborative cross-border investment projects.

This work should be the norm for our agencies, our two enterprise policies should be working hand in hand to ensure that we can build on the opportunities that our island faces post-Brexit. Lord knows we have had enough challenges because of Brexit, we now must look to the opportunities.

This is the best way that we can improve the lives of every single person who lives on this island. Those in the border regions in particular deserve this investment, they deserve this state support and they deserve to benefit richly from these opportunities.

Quite simply, there is no time to waste. The past eight years of Brexit chaos have not been kind to businesses on our border, or in Northern Ireland, but now we have certainty and political leadership, the time to increase our cooperation and grow the economic links on our island has come. Our state agencies must now focus on the border region to make up for this lost time.

The all-island economy will not rely solely on business links. We need the infrastructure to match if we want to fully realise all the opportunities that face our island.

My own Government is playing a major role here as we know that what is good for the people North of the border, is good for those South. In 2020 we committed €1 billion in funding for our Shared Island Unit to allow all-island projects to move forward this decade.

Just a few weeks ago we committed €600 million in funding to upgrade the A5. We are hoping that construction on some of the road could start this year. This would make a huge difference to not only those who live in our border regions, but for the businesses and hundreds of people who travel on this road every day.

Funding will also see a doubling in our train services between Belfast and Dublin, which will soon be hourly. Given that the Dublin-Belfast Economic Corridor is one of the most important business regions on the island, this is yet another way we can promote these business links, make it easier for them to progress, but also improve the quality of life for those living here and using our public services.

If we want to promote business links across our island, we need to make it easier and safer for people to travel on our island. We can no longer have passengers paying for a service, on a daily basis in some cases, and going without a seat or even sitting on the floor. That is why these projects are so important. While talking is important, we’re also leading with actions here to ensure these projects progress.

I cannot make a visit here to Dundalk and not mention the €10 million investment in the Battle of the Boyne site, which will allow for a renewed visitor experience and enhanced conservation.

I have long held the belief that so many of the hesitancies people on both sides of the border hold about any new Ireland is that we are far too unfamiliar with each other. We need to make those cross border visits, have the weekend break in Belfast or Derry, have people in Belfast visit Dublin, Cork, or Carlingford. Thanks to investments like these we are not only making this more accessible and easier for everyone on our island, we are making it a more attractive place to live and to work.

For far too long, North-South relations on this island have been strained. Brexit placed an unbelievable amount of pressure on both our relationship with Northern Ireland, and the British Government. But this is no longer the case. Relations are improving, the Executive is up and running, and there is a real sense of goodwill to work together.

We must seize every opportunity before us to further investment in our border regions who for too long missed out on opportunities for growth. We must encourage companies in Ireland to trade North of the border, and vice versa.

Our state agencies must view trading North and South of the border as a given, and help businesses achieve this on that basis.

If we demystify Brexit, demystify the new rules and regulations that Brexit has brought with it, this is how we can build a sustainable all-island economy.

It involves political leadership, buy-in from our agencies, buy in from our businesses, though I believe that the economic benefits will speak for themselves here, but also buy-in from the people all across our island.

For too long, we have been an island divided in more ways than one. While we cannot always control the physical border that exists on our island, we can control how we make the most of the situation before us.

Be it improved infrastructure, business links, economic links, personal or political links, a more connected Island benefits every single person who calls this their home.

I am proud to be a member of a party and a Government which is investing in and takes pride in our all-island relationship, and I am confident that while this process has been underway for 25 years, this is only the beginning.

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